On Wednesday, Zach Zaidman, WSCR's Chicago Bears' beat reporter, sent out this tweet from the team's OTA workouts:
Briggs on being in Forte's situation in 2007: "The toughest part was that I wanted a long-term deal and the organization didn't"— Zach Zaidman (@ZachZaidman) June 6, 2012
Now HOL' UP a second there, Lance Briggs. Not that we would ever fault a productive athlete for trying to get as much money as possible, particularly in a sport like professional football where careers are short-lived and the impact of participation on one's long-term health ranges from "hazardous" to "death-dealing". And not that we'd ever defend the eternally thrifty business practices of the Bears, either. But seriously, Lance Briggs: the statement above isn't exactly true.
The Bears have been locked in a contract dispute with star running back Matt Forte for a calendar year now. The Bears offered a long-term contract around this time last season that would have guaranteed the Pro Bowl running back somewhere in the neighborhood of $13.5 million. The player wants that number closer to $20 million. This isn't uncommon in the NFL; this happens all the time. Drew Brees is, like, the Greatest Guy In The World, and he's pulling the same stuff right now in New Orleans.
Matt Forte isn't a jerk and he isn't special, at least not in regards to trying to secure a small fortune for his services. I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is the assertion of Forte, and now Briggs, that the Bears were not interested in long-term deals in both scenarios. That is not true.
The Bears are currently willing to give Forte a five- or six-year contract, just as they offered Briggs a six-year, $33 million deal in 2007. Briggs saw the offer and rejected it. The next day, or somewhere in that vicinity, he appeared on SportsCenter and vowed never to play for the Bears again after they stuck the franchise tag on him, a.k.a. the same thing that is currently keeping Forte away from offseason workouts.
Briggs would go on to sign the tag and play for the Bears. The next season, he tested the free agent waters and learned he wasn't worth nearly as much on the open market as he figured. Briggs would sign a six-year, $36 million contract with $12 million guaranteed in '08. Just like Forte, he was asking for $20 million up front, and threw a tantrum when the Bears didn't give it to him.
The lesson here, of course, is that football is a business, both for the teams and the athletes. Forte recently admitted as much, and showed a good deal of levelheadedness in relation the situation:
Matt Forte to NFL Network: "It's unfortunate that the organization (can) treat it as a business, when the player does he gets frowned upon."— Zach Zaidman (@ZachZaidman) June 7, 2012
The Forte contract dispute is, more than anything, very annoying from a fan's perspective. There was the whole #PayForte thing, the knee injury that prematurely cut short his breakout season in Week 13 and then the Twitter flare-up when the Bears' inked running back Michael Bush as a backup in free agency before taking care of their starter. More recently, the Tribune leaked the team's concerns over the long-term durability of Forte's knees, which prompted the player to again take to Twitter and post a video of him running with 100 lbs. of weights attached to his back. This is high school-level he-said/she-said drama here, and Bears fans mostly just wish it would go away so the team can focus on the business of being a potential juggernaut in 2012.
Of course, the Bears have all the leverage in the situation, and the supposedly "raw deal" Forte feels like he's getting at the moment isn't really much of one.
Remember: when Forte eventually signs the tag and plays for the Bears next season, he'll make over $7 million. For a dude who's never earned more than $600,000 per season during his four-year NFL career, that isn't exactly chump change. If he has a great year again in 2012, the Bears will likely use the franchise tag on him in 2013 too, as is their right. Or, you know, Forte can take that risk out of the equation and just sign the long-term deal Chicago originally proposed, the one he considered a slap in the face, assuming it's still on the table. That would pay him about as much as two seasons worth of getting franchise tagged, and would eliminate the possibility of not getting tagged a second season due to either injury or lack of performance.
Forte has the right to be upset. He isn't out of line to feel disrespected, not when so many of his peers are inking long-term deals. The Philadelphia Eagles just re-upped LeSean McCoy for five years, $45 million with $20.7 million guaranteed. The San Francisco 49ers gave Frank Gore $14 million up front. The Carolina Panthers even gave DeAngelo Williams $21 million guaranteed, and he's currently on trial for a double homicide involving my last two fantasy teams. Matt Forte is 10x the player DeAngelo Williams is, and he knows it. To see so many of his contemporaries sign long-term deals before he does must be disheartening.
The simple fact of the matter is that the Bears are well within their right to play hardball. They are doing what's best for the bottom line, and they're smart enough to know NFL running backs don't have much longevity. But given that pro football contracts are only guaranteed to a certain point, and given that the team has more than enough cap space to sign Forte to the deal he wants, part of me wishes the franchise would just give Forte something close to his demands. It's not like the Bears are at risk of an Alfonso Soriano-level catastrophe here. Why go to such great lengths to piss off one of your best players?
This is particularly questionable when the team has such high hopes. The Bears believe they can win the Super Bowl this season. As Briggs told Zaidman yesterday: "On paper we're as good as we have ever been, if not better, but paper doesn't mean anything."
Matt Forte will be part of the Bears' Super Bowl push this season, whether he's happy about the franchise tag or not. The sooner he realizes his fate, the sooner the team and the fans can turn the page and focus on the real task at hand.
Ricky O'Donnell is the editor of SB Nation Chicago and the founder of the Chicago sports blog Tremendous Upside Potential. Follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com.